A friend of mine wrote to me a few days ago, explaining that he was pleased about the results I the last two by-elections, but that he was actually a Lib Dem (Labour won both of them).
“It was a close run thing,” he said. ”I hope the pretensions of another Lib Dem leader will not lead to the Tories slipping back in….”
This sting in the tail brought back the general election of 1992 to me. I was working at Charter 88 at the time, determined that some kind of constitutional reform would be passed by the next government (a bit like Nick Harvey and Paul Tyler in their new Radix book Can Parliament take back control?).
Looking back, one of the peculiarities of the situation back then was that Charter 88 was a largely leftie organisation – by which I mean unthinkingly so – under the charming and energetic Anthony Barnett, who went on to launch the Open Democracy website. And – even odder than that – I was only one of two declared Lib Dems in the office.
So after Neil Kinnock unexpectedly failed to win, and John Major managed to scrape home again with an overall majority of three seats – there were some in the office who wouldn’t speak to either of us for a fortnight after the election.
As if we had somehow ‘stolen’ votes that belonged to the Labour party as of right.
I suppose I am worried that there may be a repeat performance after the next election, when most people seem to agree that the Tories will fight hard and dirty to hang onto what they see as their birthright of power.
It may well be that Labour will not have encouraged enough trust in themselves to allow Conservative voters to feel safe enough switch to the Lib Dems. And if they don’t vote Lib Dem in enough numbers, then Labour can’t win.
This mathematical problem could lead to a brutalisation in the relationships between liberals and socialists – who never seem to understand that – just because voters are no longer prepared to entrust their votes to the Tories – it doesn’t necessarily mean they would welcome a Labour government with open arms.
Because, if there is one thing worse than a radical, left-wing Labour government, it is a conservative Labour government, determined to change nothing much, except to deliver traditional establishment policies more efficiently.
Which looks increasingly likely to be what we get: you can already see the authoritarian nature of the beast in Keir Starmer’s rejection of PR and his idea that the ‘Man in Whitehall’ will be able to ride roughshod over the opinions and feelings of the rights of local people who don’t want development near them (‘Nimbys’, they will call them).
So much for the devolution of power.
It all feels horribly reminiscent of the final years of the Blair-Brown government, which ended 14 years ago next May – who couldn’t see a target without tickboxing it, and who managed to waste more that £12 billion on a dysfunctional NHS computer system -which they abandoned.
Not to mention the vexed issue of identity cards.
These were finally kyboshed by the general election result in 2010, but in fact Nick Clegg had managed to pretty much undermine the idea in his leadership campaign in 2007 by saying simply that he wouldn’t ever carry one.
While those in authority in Labour would have been happy prosecuting most of us for thinking that kind of idea – certainly for failing to carry one – they were understandably nervous about the idea of taking the leader of a parliamentary party to court for not carrying his ID card.
I remember that Nick also had to go through the disapproval of his father for saying this, but it was an important statement and one I won’t let anyone forget.